Two Pittsburgh teens forfeited a winter break filled with sleeping in and lounging around the house, for a week immersed in tikkun olam, helping the homeless and poverty stricken in Los Angeles and New Orleans.
Gili Cohen, a freshman at CAPA, and Noa Jett, a junior at Winchester Thurston School, joined 100 other Jewish high school students from all over the United States and Canada to volunteer on Young Judaea’s Alternative Winter Break (AWB) from December 22 to 27.
And both girls came home primed to do it again next year.
Cohen chose to do her work in New Orleans, where residents are still struggling with the aftermaths of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“We went to peoples’ homes and replaced old light bulbs with new energy-efficient ones,” Cohen said. “We also went to a nursing home on Christmas where we played games and talked to residents, and went to a church with gifts we brought from home to give to kids. All of these people were affected by Katrina.”
The teens in New Orleans also spent time clearing lots of abandoned land that will be put to use later as community gardens, Cohen said.
For Cohen, who was very young when Katrina struck, seeing the fallout of the hurricane was eye opening.
“It was definitely all new to me,” she said. “When this happened, I was little and didn’t know what was going on. It was shocking to me. I didn’t know it was this bad. And each of the people we met had different stories. I liked that because then it was real.”
While the kids spent much of their time volunteering, they were also treated to some sightseeing, including a visit to Bourbon Street and a ride on a trolley.
“I think it was a really great experience,” she said. “It was somewhere I’d never been, and I liked doing the community service.”
For Noa Jett, working at the homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Los Angeles gave her a perspective on chronic poverty.
Jett, who volunteered on last year’s Young Judaea AWB in New York assisting Hurricane Sandy victims, said helping the homeless in Los Angeles. was different because they were dealing with an unremitting condition.
“In New York, we made a difference because we helped people get their lives on track,” said Jett, who has attended Young Judaea summer camps since 2009, and who serves as an officer on its regional board. “But in Los Angeles, the focus was not on a natural disaster, but on long-term poverty. It was a problem that has been with them for a long time.
“We developed relationships with some of the residents there, which was really a different experience,” Jett continued. “They were so grateful to get to know us. That was probably the most rewarding thing.”
As in New Orleans, it was not all work for the teens in Los Angeles, who got a chance to stroll the Santa Monica Pier, and take a bus tour of Hollywood.
Young Judaea has been offering AWB since 2007, and began going to New Orleans in 2008, according to Sharon Schoenfeld, director of year-round programs. In 2010, the organization added a second project: volunteering with the Navajo Nation.
This year, Young Judaea added Los Angeles as its second trip in order to focus on the crisis of poverty, Schoenfeld said.
Young Judaea is a pluralistic group, and teens from all denominations come together to pray, and to connect their work to Jewish values through the educational components of the trips, she said.
The trips are funded by donations, as well as by the teens and their families. Cohen got a part-time job working in the office at Congregation Beth Shalom to earn money for the trip, and also got funding from some local Jewish organizations, she said.
The AWB trips are open to all teens, regardless of whether they are members of Young Judaea or attend its summer camps, Schoenfeld said. Each trip can support up to 60 volunteers.
“I definitely would recommend it to other teens,” Cohen said. “I think it is a great experience, and something very important. But Young Judaea also makes it very enjoyable.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)